NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, January 7, 2013

When Our Emotional Attachment to Our Possessions Becomes a Problem For Our Loved Ones

During the last few years, there have been many more articles, books, and even a TV program about hoarding.  There have even been articles about how children of hoarders have been affected by a mother's or father's hoarding. 

All of these stories serve to highlight our emotional attachment to our possessions and how possessions can become imbued with personal symbolic meaning.  Even when our emotional attachment to our possessions doesn't reach the level of hoarding, it can be a psychological problem that causes distress for the person with the problem as well as loved ones who live with him or her.  But this problem can be worked through in  therapy.

Emotional Attachment to Our Possessions Become a Problem For Our Loved Ones

The following fictionalized scenario, which is a composite of many cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality, is an example of how one person's emotional attachment to his possessions can be a problem that can get worked through in therapy:

Joe became depressed after his girlfriend of 10 years, Mary, broke up with him.  The breakup occurred four years before, but Joe still missed her everyday.  When they were living together, Mary was the neat one and Joe tended to be more messy.

But after Mary left, Joe went from being messy to accumulating clutter.  The things he accumulated in the house were mostly clothes, books, and mementos from the relationship.  Other than that, he cleaned the house and never accumulated any garbage, the place was habitable, and he had people over.  It never reached the level of "hoarding," but it was still becoming a problem and he feared that this problem might get worse.

Our Emotional Attachment to Our Possessions Becomes a Problem

When he began therapy, he talked about other big losses in his life, including losing both of his parents at an early age.  Prior to Mary leaving, Joe didn't think about their deaths as much as an adult.  But after Mary left, Joe began having dreams of himself as a child searching for his parents.

It became apparent in therapy that the loss of his relationship with Mary triggered this early childhood trauma, and his emotional attachment to his possessions took on a new meaning for him with the triggering of this early trauma.  His possessions became imbued with a personal meaning that he never felt before.  It was as if his possessions were like beloved friends and family members, and he couldn't bare to part with them.

On the one hand, having them around him gave him a certain amount of emotional comfort.  But, on the other hand, the clutter increased his anxiety.  He also felt ashamed about it.  His bedroom closet was filled with clothes that he no longer wore, but they had come to have meaning to him because they were purchased for him by Mary.  His desk and his floor were littered with books and papers that he also associated with Mary.

During his therapy, Joe mourned the loss of his relationship and the loss of his parents.  He learned to nurture the "inner child" in him that he had ignored for years and who was feeling emotionally deprived.

Joe Learned to Mourn His Losses and Nurture His Inner Child So He Could Let Go 

Gradually, he started letting go of the possessions he was accumulating.  In order to let them go, he did a simple ritual in which he thanked each possession for what it "gave" him on a symbolic level.  It was still hard for Joe to let them go, but he did.  Although it was sad for him, he also began to feel less anxious because he could now relax more in his environment.  He also began to take steps to meet other women.

When Possessions Take on a Personal Symbolic Meaning and You Can't Let Go of Them:
In the above scenario, the accumulation of possessions never reached the level of hoarding as we've come to define it.  I think it's important to recognize that people can go through stages in their lives where they develop an emotional attachment to their possessions that isn't hoarding per se but is still problematic.

I believe there's a difference between clutter and hoarding, and it's important to recognize the symbolic meaning of possessions.  Often, possessions take on a symbolic meaning of being like a friend or loved one that provides comfort after a loss.  Under these circumstances, the person usually has mixed feelings about these possessions because, even though they provide a degree of emotional comfort, the clutter also creates anxiety.

Mourning and Problems with Letting Go of Possessions that Belonged to a Loved One
Many people go through a similar feeling when someone close to them dies and they have to get rid of  clothing and other possessions.  Sometimes, they have to wait a while before they can do it because it's just too hard.  They might spend time holding and smelling certain items of clothes that still have the scent of their deceased loved one.  But, eventually, they usually let go of these things because they know they have to do it or they'll remain stuck emotionally.  It's part of the mourning process.

Not Just "Messy" - The Importance of Understanding the Meaning of Holding On
It's not unusual for possessions to take on this symbolic meaning without the person who is affected  realizing it at first.  

A person who begins to accumulate clutter might just see him or herself as "messy" at first without realizing that the possessions have taken on a new meaning.  At that point, it becomes hard to get rid of these things  because who wants to throw out a "loving friend" or "family member"?

This problem is a lot more common than hoarding.   Overcoming this problem isn't easy.  It begins with an awareness that the possessions have become imbued with emotional meaning that goes beyond their functional status.  Then, overcoming the problem involves working on a deeper level, as in the scenario above.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Children of Hoarders on Leaving the Cluttered Nest